Lipsha Morrissey has not made much of his life. His grandmother, Marie, frequently tells him that he is no good, and she constantly reminds him that she saved him from his own mother, who wanted to drown him in a potato sack. Lipsha has always been grateful for Grandma Marie, but after a while, even gratitude gets old. Lipsha tells his grandmother that he has more than made up for her taking him in. He waits on her hand and foot and would do anything for her. Plus, Lipsha is the only one who can really take care of Grandpa Nector since he started losing his mind.
The awful lie that Marie tells Lipsha about his biological mother (who he later finds out is June) is difficult to square with Marie’s character. She deeply loves Lipsha, even more than her biological children, so it is hard to reconcile the fact that she would knowingly and deliberately hurt him. Lulu later suggests Marie’s love is exactly why she does it—Marie wants Lipsha to feel like she is the only “mother” he has so he will never leave her.
Lipsha is well known on the reservation for having “the touch.” He can heal others and take away their pain just by placing his hands on them. Lipsha often relieves the pain of the varicose veins in Marie’s legs, and the ladies on the reservation pay him five dollars to touch their arthritic joints. Even with “the touch,” however, Lipsha can’t get through to Nector.
Lipsha’s “touch” has the effect of making him appear nearly divine. He later explains his supernatural power as something similar to Lulu’s perceived magical power and Marie’s ability to mysteriously know things, which he further connects to their Native culture.
Lulu Lamartine, the woman who has always loved Nector, says that Nector’s mind got so full it exploded, and Lipsha doesn’t doubt it. Lipsha has always thought that is why so many Native Americans are alcoholics. Statistically, Native Americans are the smartest humans on earth, Lipsha says, and their minds are collectively exploding. Nector is so smart that he is aware he is going insane, he just can’t stop it, and he doesn’t seem to care.
Here, Lipsha implies that alcoholism is common among Native Americans because their racist society marginalizes and subjugates them when they are obviously valuable as human beings and have much to offer society. Lipsha highlights how indigenous people are just as capable, if not more, as their white counterparts, yet they are denied the same rights and freedoms. Thus, drinking is a sort of escape.
Not long after Nector sparks up his affair with Lulu again, Marie asks Lipsha to put “the touch” on Nector. Lipsha doesn’t want to, and he knows that it won’t work, but he does it anyway. As Lipsha places his hands on the sides of Nector’s head, Nector looks up at Marie. “Let’s pitch whoopee,” he says to her. Marie rolls her eyes and knocks Lipsha’s hands from Nector’s head. There will be no more whoopee with anyone, Marie says to Nector with exasperation. As Lipsha watches his grandparents, he realizes that love doesn’t get easier as one gets older. Nector looks at them and laughs.
Even in Nector’s unhinged state, he is still in love with both Lulu and Marie, which suggests that true love remains even when everything else is forgotten and one’s health begins to fail. Nector can’t remember anything, except that he loves both Lulu and Marie, which is reflected in the playful way Nector propositions Marie for sex. Marie’s response is one of love as well; she is clearly irritated with Nector’s infidelity, but she can’t help but love him.
Later at church, Lipsha sits next to Nector, who begins to shout his prayers at the top of his lungs. Lipsha asks his grandfather why he is shouting, and Nector says it is because God doesn’t hear him if he doesn’t shout. Lipsha thinks for a while and decides that God has been losing his hearing ever since the Old Testament. He thinks about the Chippewa Gods, like Nanabozho, the trickster, and the water monster called Missepeshu. If you know how to ask them, they will do you a favor, and you don’t have to shout for them to hear you, Lipsha thinks.
Lipsha and his family regularly attend Catholic mass and obviously put stock in Christianity, but the religious beliefs of Lipsha’s Native culture have stayed with him as well. Lipsha’s thoughts of Nanabozho and Missepeshu while sitting in a Catholic church implies that Lipsha has faith in both Christianity and his Native American religion and spirituality.
God must be going deaf, Lipsha thinks, or else they aren’t speaking his language. There isn’t another way to explain all the awful things Lipsha has seen growing up, like Gordie drinking himself to death and June being left to freeze to death on the side of the road by some white man. There was the “outright germ warfare” of the government and the mass killings of Native Americans, which, Lipsha believes, can only be explained by God’s poor hearing.
Here, Lipsha implies that God has forsaken the Native American people. He mentions the mass genocide of indigenous people at the hands of the United States government by introducing fatal diseases such as smallpox, and he refers to the violence and abuse indigenous women like June must face. But God doesn’t seem to hear their prayers.
Later that day, Lipsha sees Nector outside talking to Lulu in the courtyard, but when he goes to the courtyard to get him, Nector is already gone. Lipsha looks all around the senior living complex where Nector and Marie live (Lulu lives there, too), but he can’t find Nector anywhere. Lipsha even knocks on Lulu’s door, but there is no answer. Something tells Lipsha to go into the laundry room, and when he opens the door, he finds Nector and Lulu having sex up against a bank of washing machines.
While Nector hasn’t forgotten in his mentally precarious state that he loves Lulu, he has forgotten that he needs to hide it for the sake of his wife, Marie. Nector is constantly caught with Lulu—at the candy machine, in the courtyard, and now the laundry room—and it feeds the gossip at the senior living complex and causes Marie embarrassment and stress.
Lipsha slips into the laundry room and closes the door. He doesn’t quite know what to do. Yelling at Nector and Lulu to stop doesn’t feel quite right to Lipsha. Suddenly, as Nector and Lulu pick up the pace of their love making, Lulu’s wig flies off her head, catching Nector off guard. He steps back and stares at Lulu for a moment with a bland expression. Nector tells Lulu that it was the letter that started the fire, not him, but Lulu doesn’t know anything about a letter. Lipsha steps forward and hands Lulu her wig and leads Nector out of the room.
The novel later reveals that Lulu’s hair was burned off when Nector accidentally set Lulu’s house on fire years earlier. He had gone to Lulu’s house to give her the letter in which he promised to leave Marie, but he ended up changing his mind and starting the letter, and the house, on fire with a discarded cigarette. The sight of Lulu’s bald head brings this memory back to Nector, which he clearly feels guilty about.
Lipsha doesn’t know what to do with Nector. It isn’t so much that Nector is going insane, it is that he shamelessly chases after Lulu. If Lipsha could just get Nector to stay away from Lulu, it would solve most of their problems. Marie is finally the one to come up with a plan. Even though Marie refuses to admit that she has any Native American blood, Lipsha knows that she is a true Chippewa. Marie seems to just know things, like if Lipsha has been drinking, and she once told Gordie never to ride in a car with any of Lamartine boys because she had a bad feeling. Within a few days, Lyman and Henry crashed into the river and Henry was killed.
Like Lulu and Lipsha, Marie has seemingly supernatural powers, which Lipsha attributes to their Chippewa heritage. Marie’s refusal to admit her Native blood suggests that she is ashamed of her Native identity (Marie says earlier that she does have Native blood, although not much). Marie has internalized the racism of broader society, and it affects the way she views herself and her identity.
Marie’s plan involves “love medicine,” which is “an old Chippewa specialty.” Love medicine must be practiced by someone who knows what they are doing, and it can be very, very dangerous. Lipsha promises Marie he will think about the love medicine, and even he considers going to Fleur Pillager for help but decides against it. One day, while looking up at the sky, Lipsha sees two geese fly overhead, and he is struck with an idea for the perfect love medicine. Geese mate for life, Lipsha thinks. If he kills a mated pair and feeds their hearts to Nector and Marie, maybe they will mate for life, too, and Nector will forget about Lulu.
The conjuring of “love medicine” is likened to a religious ceremony or practice in Lipsha’s Native American culture that requires an experienced practitioner. Ironically, Fleur Pillager, who is presumably schooled in “love medicine” is actually Lulu’s mother, which is likely why Lipsha decides against asking for her help. The geese, which are symbolic of love and lifelong mating, are seen earlier in the novel as well. When Nector first meets Marie he is carrying two geese to town to sell.
Lipsha immediately tells Marie about his idea for the love medicine, and she borrows him Nector’s gun so he can go hunting. Lipsha sits in the hunting blind near the water for what feels like hours before two geese fly overhead. Lipsha stands and aims the gun, firing off two shots, but he misses and the birds fly away. Disappointed, Lipsha decides to go to the Red Owl grocery store.
Lipsha misses the geese because he isn’t as skilled a hunter as Nector was in his youth. Lipsha doesn’t even have his own gun, which reflects the slow, gradual assimilation of Native people through the generations. Lipsha no longer lives off the land in the traditional way—he goes to the grocery store.
Later, Lipsha walks home with two frozen turkeys. He has convinced himself that the power of the love medicine is not in the hearts of the geese but in “the faith of the cure.” The next day, after the birds have thawed, Lipsha removes the hearts and wraps them in a handkerchief. He climbs the hill to the Sacred Heart Convent and asks the priest to bless the turkey hearts, but the priest tells him to ask Sister Mary instead. When Sister Mary won’t bless the hearts either, Lipsha dips his fingers in the holy water on his way out the door and blesses the hearts himself.
Lipsha’s attempt to have a Christian blessing performed on the love medicine is more evidence of the blending of his Native faith and spirituality with Christianity. Lipsha goes out of his way to have the hearts blessed, which suggests he has great faith in both the love medicine and Christianity. Sister Mary and the priest disregard both Lipsha and the love medicine when they won’t bless the hearts, but Christianity is so important to Lipsha that he blesses the hearts himself.
Back at Marie’s, Lipsha presents his grandmother with the raw hearts and she immediately pops one in her mouth and swallows it. “Now that’s true love,” Lipsha thinks to himself in disgust. Marie says that she will find a way to get Nector to eat his, and then she calls him to lunch. She serves Nector the heart raw on a bed of lettuce and tells him it has been ordered by the doctor because he needs iron in his blood. Nector is hesitant. He doesn’t want to eat the heart, but he finally puts it in his mouth after Marie orders him to. Nector rolls the heart around in his mouth, teasing Marie, and she stands up and swats him hard between the shoulder blades, trying to get him to swallow the heart—only Nector chokes on it and dies.
Marie’s willingness to gulp the heart down raw is a testament to her love for Nector, whereas Nector’s hesitance to eat the heart suggest that his love for Lulu transcends even the deeply rooted Native tradition of love medicine, which aligns with Erdrich’s argument that love can transcend anything. Marie’s impatience and her deep desire for Nector to eat the love medicine is ultimately what kills Nector, which also suggests that love can cause people to do dangerous and destructive things in order to hold on to their loved ones.
Over the next days, the entire family comes home to bury Nector. Even Albertine has come home despite being very busy with her studies. She has recently quit nursing school and decided to go to medical school instead, and she sits now, her eyes red from crying, next to Lipsha in the church pew. Lipsha is suddenly struck by how dependable grief and death are, and he decides then and there to shake King’s hand the next time he sees him.
Nector’s death brings out the closeness of Lipsha’s family, and they all lean on each other during their time of grieving. Nector’s death has Lipsha thinking about how short life is, and he doesn’t want to waste any more time denying that King is his brother. Furthermore, Albertine’s decision to become a doctor instead of a nurse reflects her independence and desire to break from traditional feminine roles and jobs, such as nursing, which she considers oppressive.
Later that night, Lipsha sees the light on in Marie’s room, and he decides to go in. Marie is sitting on her bed holding a rosary in her hands. Marie tells Lipsha that Nector isn’t gone yet. She says that she has seen Nector since his death. It is the love medicine, Marie says. It is so strong Nector has come back from death to claim her. Sitting with Marie, Lipsha becomes aware of Nector’s presence in the room. Speaking out loud, Lipsha tells Nector to go back and find June, and then he feels him leave the room.
The rosary, which is symbolic of Marie’s connection to both Christianity and as well as June, means that Marie is again offering her modified form of prayer. Marie doesn’t pray in the traditional sense, but she does touch the rosary occasionally in a secret prayer of sorts. Nector’s presence in the room is evidence of his deep love for both Marie and Lipsha.
That night, Lipsha sleeps like a baby, then he finds Marie the next day and tells her the truth about the geese and the love medicine. But it isn’t the love medicine that has brought Nector back, Lipsha tells Marie, it is because Nector loves her “over time and distance” and wants her to know that it isn’t her fault that he is dead. Marie tells Lipsha that he has always been her favorite, and then places the rosary in his hand.
Lipsha’s belief that Nector’s presence is due to Nector’s natural love and not the love medicine supports Erdrich’s central argument that love transcends all else, as Nector loves Marie “over time and distance. As the rosary is symbolic of Marie’s connection to June, Marie extends this connection to Lipsha as well when she gives it to him, which suggests that Marie herself is coming to terms with the fact that Lipsha is June’s son, not her own.